Is Respiratory Innovation Stuck in the Stone Age?

Check out the video interview…

Or, follow along with the transcript…

TB: Welcome to our Facebook Live session.  We’re going to talk a little bit about why and how respiratory protection has been stuck, why it’s done that way. To help us with that conversation, we have with us Kevin Brown.  Kevin is a long time industry veteran in the respiratory space and is also an advisor to CleanSpace.  Kevin, welcome to our Facebook Live.

KB:  Thanks Tom, it’s great to be with you today.

TB: Talk to us a bit about, since we’re talking about respiratory innovation today, a little bit of the history and why do you believe it’s been kind of stalled and what do we mean by that when we say it’s stalled a bit?

KB:  Well I think that’s a good question, Tom.  Certainly not to say there hasn’t been anything new that’s happened or no innovation at all. But people have been trying to protect themselves, you used the term earlier the Stone Age, literally since the Stone Age people have been trying to protect themselves from hazardous dust or fumes that are in the air. In fact, there’s records back to 500 AD and even in the Roman Empire people literally at that point used animal bladders to wear over the top of their head. If you can imagine that, which sounds pretty disgusting. But to try and filter out the air that they were breathing while they were just trying to meek out in existence and make a living.

Up until today people are still doing the same thing in their workplace. They need to protect their lungs and their health from hazardous environments. But certainly with the advent of OSHA here in the United States in the early 1970’s, more and more work places became exposed to their requirement to protect their workers. So we saw some new products and some innovation there. At the end of the day, we really have two types of respirators. We have air purifying respirators and we have supplied air types of respirators. At the end of the day, both of those types of products are trying to filter out contaminants, whether they be gases and vapors or dust, mist, or fumes, to get those out of the air to protect the worker.

But really what we’ve seen probably in the last 20, 25 years is some very narrow innovation. It’s interesting, I know from our conversations we’re both iPhone guys. When I was writing an article recently on this similar topic for a trade publication, it was the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. The iPhone is been a pretty innovative and a pretty amazing product. Since that came out, we all expect to get a new phone every 12 to 18 months, and that there’s going to be major new features and things that we could do. Who would have thought that 15 years ago that you and I could have communicated at this level and broadcast live to people around the world.

Major innovation, when we think about technology and the rest of our lives, whether it be the computers that we’re on, they have Moores Law about the rapid expansion of chip speed and that has proved true over decades now to be true. But yet in the industrial market, whether it’s related to tools or it’s related to safety products, there’s really been nothing that’s been dramatic from an innovation standpoint. Certainly people have changed some filter medias in respiratory protection, they’ve found maybe better battery life for powered air purifying respirators, maybe on some SCBAs and so forth there’s been some adaptation to communication systems and so forth. But nothing that really changes the game or that looks and feels and performs really differently.

TB:  Do you think that the lack of innovation is really because the regulatory change or requirements haven’t changed all that much? S o, once the products were basically complying that’s as far as they need to go?

KB:  I think that’s a very good point, Tom. C ertainly, I don’t mean to throw any stones at the manufacturers out there that are making respiratory products, but I think at the end of the day there’s some pretty straight forward standards that OSHA requires in their 1910.134 standard. All those products need to be approved through NIOSH. Once you meet those standards, you’re providing a customer, whether the distributor or the end user, with a product that meets those standards and those requirements to allow them to become compliant. That would probably be some level of, maybe the word stagnant is a little bit is reasonable to use in this instance. There’s been no great reason to do anything of anything dramatic and certainly we had a number of years ago some updates to the respiratory standard from OSHA but no dramatic changes to the requirement for protection. We have the Silica standard, that’s getting ready to go in under enforcement here in the next few months so we’ll see what comes out of that. But there’s been, as we said, nothing dramatic that’s happened in anytime recently.

TB:   Well and even what you’re talking about is most of the changes have been driven protection wise but there’s obviously more to a respiratory mask or system than just the protection, right. There’s the ergonomics of it, there’s the comfort of it, there’s all those things that if those aren’t in place and it’s not practical and not really effective then the problem becomes they’re not used or people aren’t wearing them or they’re certainly not happy wearing them along the way.  So there’s more to it than just the protection part of it as it related to innovation.

KB:  Well that’s a really good point Tom, you’re absolutely right, and truly when we talk about ergonomics and comfort as that’s probably where the adjustments and the modifications had been made over the last 10, 15 years is to certainly try to get a product that protects better but when it fits better, it’s easier to wear. It’s more comfortable, it maybe isn’t as hot, there ergonomic factors as you mentioned. It certainly drives user compliance so the end user and that worker is willing to wear it on a more ongoing basis.

TB: So where do you think we’re headed now? I mean do you think that we’re seeing kind of some changes in the industry where we will be seeing some more innovation and what kind of innovation? Where would we expect to see it?

KB:  That’s a great question. To start with I think there’s an interesting thing going on right now. I mean here we are and coming to the ladder part of July in 2017 and in a couple months this Silica standard is going to require literally millions of additional US workers to comply with respiratory protection, specifically in a construction worker place. So I think there’s some opportunities that with the new amount of workers that are required to wear products, there may be an opportunity that we see some things happen there. But I think the reality of it that comes in is it’s going to be a company that has to take the lead and say you know what, there’s something better that we could do for workers.

The first thing that we’re seeing with that right now is what our friends at Clean Space are doing with their latest product, and as the Clean Space PAPR respirators are just brand new to the US market place, being launched … This is great, you got a good picture of it here. As you can see from these pictures, this is very different view of what a powered air purifying respirator can be. Instead of the traditional product with bulky battery packs and filtered systems that are being worn on somebody’s waist or around their waist, and hoses coming to them up to the mask that provides more ergonomic issues, some heavyweight issues to those.

Clean Space has really done away with that by putting the motor system and the filtration system where it rests from a head cradle and certainly sits on the back of the neck and the shoulders and this has become a fantastic product. In being with Clean Space team from Australia at both the american industrial hygiene conference in Seattle last month and the America’s society of safety engineers conference in Denver in June, I’ve never seen a reaction in, and I believe it’s 27 years that I’ve attended the national safety conference and for a similar amount of years have been going to these two other conferences being the industrial hygiene and the American society of safety engineers show. I’ve never seen the reaction at a trade show booth that we saw from end users and consultants and large distributor groups that were coming through and saw a product that’s truly innovative that said we don’t have to make this product look like the way it looked 20 years ago. We can do things differently that are going to protect the worker.

Worker adoption of these products for Clean Space as 20 plus thousand of them in use throughout Europe and other parts of the world, is proving that there is an opportunity for innovation. So Clean Space has done some really neat things. I think we can’t avoid the technology that’s out there. We’re starting to wear things on our wrists or our hips that track how many steps we took. At some point there’s going to be some type of technology that’s added to personal protective equipment, whether it’s into a worker’s safety boots or something that tracks how long a pair of gloves is going to last or ergonomic products that are providing data on the worker safety.

I think there’s a great opportunity for advancement, especially as technology around us continues to increase and improve. We certainly don’t allow for our personal electronics that we use day in and day out to stay stagnant, do we?

TB:  No, that’s for sure. Our tolerance for that is very, very low.  People, especially when they looked at these masks as a powered mask, they were like well there’s no way, where’s the pack? Where’s the hose? All that kind of stuff. I think that there’s a real opportunity, and you mentioned the Silica standard and some of the standards changing for people that are workers that would normally wear say a negative pressure mask or a disposable mask that just didn’t want to get into the hassle, I guess you could say, of a powered mask now can do that. So they can have the best of both worlds. They can have or we can start to see that workers can get the protection of a powered respirator with the convenience and comfort of the negative pressure mask that aren’t these bulky pieces. I think we’re starting to see that excitement brew a bit in the market, would you agree?

KB:  I certainly would, and at the end of the day the comment I made earlier is that we don’t stand for complacency in any other parts of our lives when it comes to whether maybe an appliance or it’s the technology we use at work. It’s advancing on a consistent basis and it’s certainly reasonable to expect that from our personal protective equipment as well. So I know there’s a lot of great companies out there, people are working hard to be supportive of that in growing and expanding products. But it’s easy to say and certainly true to say that the workers, whether they’re in the US or in anywhere else in the world, certainly deserve everything we could possibly do to help them become safer at work.

TB:   Yeah, great point. Well to me that sounds like some good news, right? It sounds like innovation is definitely, whether it’s through Clean Space or other manufacturers, there’s definitely some innovation, serious innovation starting to occur. I think we’re going to see more and more innovation here over the next few months and years I would expect. That’s good news for everybody and we’ll make sure we keep everybody up to date and up to speed of the latest technology as it comes out.

KB:  I think that’s great to do Tom. There’s lots of us folks working on good things out there. I think Clean Space is certainly throwing the gauntlet down that there is great change that can be made with significant innovation to worker comfort and safety and not necessarily even in the situation where it requires a much more expensive product. I think some of the Clean Space products are actually less expensive than traditional products that they far out perform.

So a gauntlet being thrown down is important because we all like to compete, it’s in our nature and I think that’s good for the worker.

TB:  Yeah, I think it’s good for the worker, good for the industry, and I think we’ll some exciting things here coming up over the next very few months or so.

KB:  Most certainly.

TB:  Okay, well any final words before we wrap up this episode?

KB:  I say keep innovating and stay safe.

TB: Okay, sounds good. Thanks a lot Kevin, thanks everybody for listening and as I said we’ll keep you posted and we’ll definitely be having more Facebook live sessions here. We’ll be bringing on some other experts, we’ll be bringing on other people in the industry to keep you up to date on everything that’s going on. Until then, have a great week and we’ll talk again soon.